- Saudi Arabia said on Sunday it was withdrawing its observers from Syria after an Arab monitoring mission failed to end 10 months of bloodshed, and called on the international community to exert all possible pressure on Damascus.
Hundreds of Syrians have been killed since the observers began their work in late December and political opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are demanding the Arab League refer the crisis to the United Nations Security Council.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby reported to Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Sunday that Syria had only partly met the terms of an Arab peace plan and that a monitoring mission to Syria be extended, expanded and get more technical support.
After a day of meetings over how to handle the Syrian crisis, the foreign ministers were expected to recommend that Syria create a unity government including opposition figures within two months to prepare for early parliamentary and presidential elections, a draft of the final statement showed.
It was not clear how the Arab League might enforce those recommendations given its failure to stop the violence, in which the United Nations says at least 5,000 people have killed.
The Saudi comments suggest the extension of a mission Syria's opposition has described as toothless, and the new political road map, will not be enough to satisfy everyone in the 22-member League, divided over whether to escalate pressure.
My country will withdraw its monitors because the Syrian government did not execute any of the elements of the Arab resolution plan, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal told the ministers. The statement was obtained by Reuters after he spoke.
We are calling on the international community to bear its responsibility, and that includes our brothers in Islamic states and our friends in Russia, China, Europe and the United States, Prince Saud said, calling for all possible pressure to push Syria to adhere to the Arab peace plan.
For graphic on Arab League http://link.reuters.com/pev65s
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals of Syria and its ally Iran, are impatient for decisive action against Assad but military action against Assad would need unanimous backing and several states prefer a negotiated solution, League sources say.
While none have so far followed suit, a diplomatic source said the remaining Gulf states backed the Saudi position while Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia criticised its move.
The Security Council is also split on how to address the crisis, with Western powers demanding tougher sanctions and a weapons embargo, and Assad's ally Russia preferring to leave the Arabs to negotiate a peaceful outcome.
Suggestions to send in U.N. experts to support the Arab observers made little headway at the last meeting earlier this month and Damascus has said it would accept an extension of the observer mission but not an expansion in its scope.
Others worry that weakening Assad could tip Syria, with its potent mix of religious and ethnic allegiances, into a deeper conflict that would destabilise the entire region. Some may fear the threat from their own populations if he were toppled.
Qatar, which has led calls for escalation, said it was time to rethink the mission and consider sending Arab peacekeepers.
The reality says that the bloodshed has not stopped and the killing machine is still working and violence is spread everywhere, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told the ministers. His comments later appeared in a statement.
What is needed now is a full review of the work of this mission.
The lack of a unified Arab response has frustrated Syria's opposition which has demanded that Arab countries clearly state Assad's failure to adhere to its peace plan, withdraw monitors and hand the file to the UN Security Council.
Syrian opposition leaders urged other Arab states to follow Saudi Arabia's lead.
We welcome the Saudi stance and I know that the Saudis are also pro sending the Syria file to the United Nations, said Abdel Baset Seda, an official in the main opposition Syrian National Council.
Two Syrian army officers, an infantryman, a rebel and two civilians died in clashes on Sunday in Talfita, a village near Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syria says 2,000 security personnel have been killed in the revolt.
Intermittent fighting continued in the town of Douma, nine miles (14 km) northwest of the capital, which had been encircled by the military, said the UK-based rights group.
An opposition activist and a rebel fighter in Douma told Reuters by telephone the fighting had eased and the rebels held about two thirds of its main streets.
Masked fighters had set up checkpoints and a funeral procession for five civilians killed on Saturday was passing through the town, they said. Angry cries could be heard in the background as they spoke.
The rebel fighter said there were several casualties on Sunday but no confirmed deaths.
Syrian forces opened fire on a car near the mountainous north Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled, leading to an exchange of fire between the passengers and the Syrians, a Lebanese security source said. Residents later said they found a Syrian man wounded by landmines placed on border.
Syria, keen to avoid tougher foreign action, has tried to show it is complying with the Arab peace plan, which demanded a halt to killings, a military pullout from the streets, the release of detainees, access for the monitors and the media, and a political dialogue with opposition groups.
This month the Syrian authorities have freed hundreds of detainees, announced an amnesty, struck a ceasefire deal with armed rebels in one town, allowed the Arab observers into some troublespots and admitted some foreign journalists.
Assad also promised political reforms, while vowing iron-fisted treatment of the terrorists trying to topple him.
(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut and Lin Noueihed in Cairo; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer and Lin Noueihed; Editing by Maria Golovnina)